Scientists Say: Quarantine

Sometimes when people or animals are sick — or might be sick — isolating them is part of the solution


To stop an illness from spreading, doctors may keep those exposed to the illness in a small area. This is called a quarantine.

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Quarantine (noun, “KWAH-ran-teen”, verb, “to quarantine”)

This is a temporary restriction and separation of people or animals who have been exposed to a contagious disease. People or animals who may have come in contact with the illness are confined to a small area. While they are there, doctors wait to see if they become sick.

A quarantine isn’t just isolating someone with a disease. Isolation is used to separate people who are sick from people who aren’t. But quarantines separate out both people who are sick and people who have been exposed to a disease. That’s true whether they are sick or not.  The hope is that this prevents the disease from spreading.

Unfortunately, quarantines are difficult. People don’t like being told where they can and can’t go — even if they or their family members are infected with an illness. Governments may have to send police or military groups to help keep people quarantined. So quarantines are used only for diseases that spread very easily and are very dangerous. Colds may spread easily. But they’re not very dangerous, so a quarantine isn’t needed. Cancer, on the other hand, can be very dangerous, but it’s not contagious. A quarantine isn’t needed there, either. But for a virus like Ebola — which spreads rapidly and is very deadly — doctors might try a quarantine.

In a sentence

Scientists are looking for vaccines or treatments to combat Ebola virus, but quarantine is still the most effective way to stop its spread.

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Bethany Brookshire was a longtime staff writer at Science News Explores and is the author of the book Pests: How Humans Create Animal Villains. She has a Ph.D. in physiology and pharmacology and likes to write about neuroscience, biology, climate and more. She thinks Porgs are an invasive species.

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